Give timetable for stepping down, Blair urged

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is being urged to announce a firm timetable for his exit from Downing Street to prevent the referendum on Europe in a year's time being dominated by the issue of when he should stand down.

Tony Blair is being urged to announce a firm timetable for his exit from Downing Street to prevent the referendum on Europe in a year's time being dominated by the issue of when he should stand down.

Pro-European Labour MPs and some ministers fear that the vote on the proposed European Union constitution could become a referendum on Mr Blair unless he names a date by which he will leave No 10 before the plebsicite, which is expected in May or June next year. The Yes camp already faces an uphill struggle to win the referendum.

Supporters of the constitution fear a "Blair factor" will make it even harder after Mr Blair's Labour critics claimed he was a liability during the general election.

They are also pressing for all Cabinet ministers to play a prominent role in a campaign that would also include pro-European Tories, Liberal Democrats, businessmen and trade unionists.

One senior Labour figure said: "It can't be a one-man campaign, and unless there is a firm date for the handover, there is a danger that people use the referendum as a protest vote against the Prime Minister. It would offer them a free hit; they wouldn't be changing the Government."

At Mr Blair's monthly press conference yesterday, he refused to be drawn on when he intends to stand down. "I have nothing to add to what I said in the election campaign," he said. "That remains the position. I think the party and, in a sense, the country wants to see us get on with business now."

For the second day running, he declined to repeat his pledge during the campaign to serve a "full term" before quitting before the next election. This has fuelled speculation at Westminster that he will stand down in the autumn of next year. The Independent disclosed on Monday that senior ministers want him to go within 18 months.

Some want him to quit in the summer of next year so that a new leader can be crowned at Labour's annual conference in September, or to announce his departure in his speech to the conference so his successor could be elected by the end of the year.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said yesterday he did not know when Mr Blair would leave No 10 but added that a "statement" would be made in due course.

He welcomed as "a good approach" Mr Blair's promise to Labour MPs on Wednesday that he wanted a "stable and orderly transition." Interviewed on BBC Radio 4, Mr Prescott hinted that the timing could in part be dictated by Labour's autumn conference.

He said: "He wants the party to get itself ready under a new leadership. The time will come for the proper discussion on that. The timetable is determined by all sorts of party requirements in that matter about elections."

Mr Blair promised a "bold" programme of reform of the public services in his third term to complete the renewal of public services.

"That means driving innovation and improvement through more diverse provision and by putting people themselves in the driving seat," he said.

The Prime Minister said he would publish White Papers on reform of the NHS and schools before the autumn and a Green Paper on reforming incapacity benefit before the summer recess.

The Cabinet yesterday approved an ambitious list of 40 Bills that will be included in the Queen's Speech next Tuesday at the start of the new parliamentary year.

They include measures on immigration and asylum; replica guns and knives; allowing successful schools to take over poor ones; a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces; anti-terrorism powers; identity cards; incapacity benefit and cutting Whitehall red tape.

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